This past month has seen the death of two masters of the English language; writer and journalist Hunter S. Thompson and playwright Arthur Miller. One of them slept with Marilyn Monroe, the other did a lot of drugs. Who said this job didn’t have perks? But what matters to us is that during their working hours they both, in their own way, helped define the English language in the 20th Century.
The people most likely to be defining the English language in this century are not British or American or even native English speakers at all, but the billions of native speakers of other languages who are using English on a regular basis. According to the British Council, by the end of the decade some three billion people will be able to speak English and another 2 billion will be learning to. What this means for the language is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the greatest writers of the 21st Century will write in English as a 2nd language. There are precedents. Master novelists such as Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov, Polish-born Joseph Conrad and Indian-born Salman Rushdie all wrote their best known works in English.
Perhaps it would have been preferable if the world language were Latin, or French, or Esperanto. But it happens to be English. And the fact that there is a world language at all is something to be grateful for. While it is only natural to have an attachment to your native language, the fact that we will all one day be able to converse in one another in a mutually comprehensible language should make things easier. One would also hope that one day it will also make things more peaceful.
Meanwhile, another writer died this past month. Elmar Huseynov, editor of Azerbaijan’s The Monitor, known for his opposition to the government, was murdered on March 2nd .
Without brave journalists like Huseynov, there would be no such thing as democracy. If people are to be able to exercise their right to vote according to their beliefs and needs, they also need to be able to know what it is they are voting for. And, in today’s market society, they need know what their financial leaders, no less powerful than elected political figures, are doing. Because it affects all of us in the prices we have to pay for our food and hence our standard of living.
Journalists will always be under pressure by those who hold power to only tell us the part of the truth that suits them. But journalism is not just a job, it is a calling. Elmar Huseynov laid his life on the line, and lost it. For those of us living under democratic capitalism, the possibility of getting killed for what we write is remote. But if we displease those who hold power, particularly in a small country such as ours, it can seriously affect our careers. It may take away that which we hold most dear, our ability to write for a living. Awareness of this may sometimes lead some people to keep quiet those parts of the truth that may harm their careers.
But, if journalists’ loyalty is not first and foremost to the truth, if they wind up serving the interests of political or corporate bosses, if all they give us is gossip and veiled product placement, then the words of Hunter S. Thompson will ring true when nothing else does:
“…Why bother with newspapers, if this is all they offer? Agnew was right. The press is a gang of cruel faggots. Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuck-offs and misfits –a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the side-walk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.”
But for now, it is time to hand English back to the Americans. I leave you in the capable hands of Bart Cameron. So long. I’ll be seeing you soon.
This publishing date marks the 20th and last Grapevine I’m editing, at least for the time being. It also marks the 203rd anniversary of the first regular English language paper, The Daily Courant.